Productivity is a surprisingly vague term given its importance in economics. The essence of productivity is as follows: when an industry or an economy is more “productive”, it can make more output with the same amount of input.The point missed here is that productivity makes the cake bigger, fighting over how to cut it up-which is what issues like equality, fairness, justice, etc basically amount to-makes it smaller. The real question then is basically, Do you want the same share of a bigger cake or a larger share of a smaller cake?
This definition indicates that productivity isn’t a goal in itself. The goal of policy should be to support domestic economic activity (efficiency), while ensuring that the other issues that society values (equality, fairness, justice, etc) are taken into account. The purpose of an elected government is to balance the often competing goals on the basis of what it appears society wants.
History teaches us a few things, productivity makes a country wealthier, takes people out of poverty and makes most people better off. Making the cake bigger has real benefits to people. With regard to wages and productivity Paul Krugman has written,
Economic history offers no example of a country that experienced long-term productivity growth without a roughly equal rise in real wages. In the 1950s, when European productivity was typically less than half of U.S. productivity, so were European wages; today average compensation measured in dollars is about the same. As Japan climbed the productivity ladder over the past 30 years, its wages also rose, from 10% to 110% of the U.S. level. South Korea's wages have also risen dramatically over time. ("Does Third World growth hurt First World Prosperity?" Harvard Business Review 72 n4, July-August 1994: 113-21.)From a paper by Martin Feldstein, Professor of Economics, Harvard University and President and CEO of the National Bureau of Economic Research [he has since retied from the NBER post], given to the American Economic Association on January 5, 2008 we see more evidence on the relationship between productivity and wages. The paper is entitled "Did Wages Reflect Growth in Productivity?" Feldstein writes,
The level of productivity doubled in the U.S. nonfarm business sector between 1970 and 2006. Wages, or more accurately total compensation per hour, increased at approximately the same annual rate during that period if nominal compensation is adjusted for inflation in the same way as the nominal output measure that is used to calculate productivity.and later he says
More specifically, the doubling of productivity represented a 1.9 percent annual rate of increase. Real compensation per hour rose at 1.7 percent per year when nominal compensation is deflated using the same nonfarm business sector output price index.
In the period since 2000, productivity rose much more rapidly (2.9 percent a year) and compensation per hour rose nearly as fast (2.5 percent a year).
The relation between wages and productivity is important because it is a key determinant of the standard of living of the employed population as well as of the distribution of income between labor and capital. If wages rise at the same pace as productivity, labor’s share of national income remains essentially unchanged. This paper presents specific evidence that this has happened: the share of national income going to employees is at approximately the same level now as it was in 1970.So when measured correctly, productivity and wage do roughly move together over time. For the US at least.
In other words, people have a higher standard of living because of productivity growth. The cake is bigger and thus we can have more of the things we want. Matt end his article by saying,
Both political parties are unwilling to face that, with respect to government policies, there is a fundamental trade-off between some social values (fairness, justice, etc) and the level of productive activity. This trade-off is one of the primary reasons for the existence of government – and yet neither of the political parties seem willing or able to recognise it.I'm not sure the trade-off is as large and important as Matt thinks. It is both possible and much easier to concern oneself with issues of justice and fairness when you are rich, the poor don't have time for it, they are too occupied just making ends meet. Productivity make us rich, it results in a higher standard of living for us. Doesn't sound like much of a trade-off to me.
As a result, next time we hear the government discuss the importance of productivity, or we hear some international body talk about the goal of productivity growth, let’s try not to forget that there is a trade-off – and let's ask exactly what this trade-off is.